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His number becomes ubiquitous on April 15 every year when players and coaches across baseball don No. 42 jerseys in his honor.
On Monday, his likeness will be on display more than ever. MLB uniforms will have a commemorative sleeve patch recognizing the centennial year of his birth. His logo will be adorned on players’ socks and hats, and stamped onto base jewels and lineup cards. His legacy will even creep up into the stands at Dodger Stadium with the first 40,000 fans receiving replica No. 42 jerseys.
But Jackie Robinson Day isn’t about making a fashion statement.
“If kids just think he wore 42 and was a good baseball player, they’re not getting past page one or two of a 500 page book,” Dodgers historian Mark Langill said.
The story of Jackie Robinson and his impact
Robinson’s story began 100 years ago when he was born into a sharecropper family in Cairo, Georgia. He grew up in Pasadena, California, where he emerged as a standout athlete in high school. He later starred in basketball, football, baseball and track at UCLA, becoming the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports.
Robinson excelled in semi-pro football for a short period, then was drafted into the Army. He sparked controversy when he disobeyed a bus driver who ordered him to sit in the back of the bus, but was ultimately honorably discharged.
He joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in 1945, around the same time the Brooklyn Dodgers were looking for a player to integrate baseball. The club decided on Robinson and signed him to a minor league contract. The second baseman’s sensational play earned him a spot in the Dodgers’ opening day lineup two years later. On April 15, 1947, Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.
Robinson endured the scorn of fans, opponents and even teammates in the big leagues. He received racist taunts, jeers and death threats. Yet, Robinson, who was active in the civil rights movement, persevered. Over a 10-year career, he was named Rookie of the Year, National League MVP and a six-time All-Star.
“He was the trailblazer who our parents and grandparents looked up to,” MLB executive Tony Reagins said. “I harken back to my upbringing and not forgetting where I came from and who paved the way for me. We can't forget that. His will to do what wasn’t accepted paved the way for athletes in all sports.”
Reagins, who oversees the development of youth and amateur baseball, grew up in Indio, California. His father died when he was 4 and his mother worked three jobs. He spent most of his youth at the Boys Club where mentors inspired him to go to college and eventually land an internship with the Los Angeles Angels. After serving in various positions with the club for 15 years, Reagins was promoted to general manager in 2007. He became the fourth African-American in baseball to ever hold that position.
Jackie Robinson’s legacy lives on
Reagins now spearheads MLB’s efforts to get young people of all backgrounds to play baseball. The league most recently renamed Dodgertown — the former spring home of the Brooklyn Dodgers — the Jackie Robinson Training Complex. Dodgertown opened in 1948 as the first fully-integrated spring training site and hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers until they moved to Arizona in 2008.
MLB will hold amateur camps focused on developing and diversifying baseball at the complex. This summer’s notable events include the Hank Aaron Invitational and the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities baseball and softball world series. The invitational will bring 250 players from across the country together to receive training from former MLB players and coaches. RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) is a financially accessible division of baseball for disadvantaged youth. All of the events at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex are free.
“It’s really going to be a place where kids that are involved in the program, when they get there, they may not know who Jackie Robinson is, but when leave they leave, they definitely will know who he was and his impact on the game and life,” Reagins said.
The Dodgers are also hosting youth focused events in honor of Robinson, culminating with pregame ceremonies at Monday night’s game. The club invited 100 students from BOSS— a local nonprofit that helps athletes succeed in school— to Dodger Stadium on Saturday to learn about Robinson’s life and legacy.
The boys, ranging from elementary to high schoolers, wore Dodgers hats with No. 42 stickers. They gathered at Robinson’s statue where manager Dave Roberts spoke to them.
“As I look at you guys, I see myself,” Roberts told the predominantly African-American crowd. “I just see desire. I see openness. I see intelligence ... dreams.”
Roberts learned about Robinson from his father, who resonated with Robinson’s experience because he was the only African-American of 2,000 students at his high school. Roberts, who is African-American and Japanese, followed Robinson’s path through the UCLA baseball program and into the majors. After a 10-year career as an outfielder, he became the first minority manager in Dodgers franchise history.
“Jackie learned at a young age that it’s bigger than him,” Roberts told the students. “I’ve been in his shadow for quite a long time. It’s big shoes to fill. I have the opportunity to manage the Dodgers, and I have the responsibility to listen to you guys so you continue to be successful in your own individual paths.”
Many kids won’t have the opportunity to meet a big league manager, but when they see No. 42 on Monday and ask what it means, baseball invites them to open the book of Robinson’s legacy and begin writing their own sequels like Reagins, Roberts and many others before them.
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